After a historic day with our first double-dose of extra regular-season games, the playoff situation is finally sorted in the National League. The games certainly provided some narrative fodder that we’ll be revisiting over the coming weeks, so let’s dig into the NL postseason and take a look backwards to the tiebreakers and forward to the NL Wild Card Game.
In both bonus games, there was a strange tension in the air, with managers seemingly torn between treating it like an elimination game and just another game in July. There was certainly a little bit more on the line going into the Cubs-Brewers game, as the winner of the game would not only avoid the play-in game, but also ensure home-field advantage as far as the World Series. Credit certainly goes to Brewers manager Craig Counsell, who managed the game with the importance it seemed to deserve.
Whether or not you questioned Counsell’s timing on pulling starter Jhoulys Chacin, given the fact that the teams were still playing with a 40-man roster, he still provided 5.2 innings of one-hit baseball, albeit a solo home run to Anthony Rizzo. After a brief blip from Xavier Cedeño (who was pulled after issuing a hit and walk), the Brewers stayed in control, with Joakim Soria recording a crucial out before handing it over to Corey Knebel and Josh Hader to shut out the Cubs for three innings.
The Brewers rotation has been shaky all season (they rank 17th in MLB by fWAR with 9.4), but their relievers have been so good lately that it hasn’t mattered. Before September rolled around, I was worried about the bullpen, but then they shut me down and put up the best ERA (1.98), FIP (2.32) and fWAR (2.7) in MLB, allowing the Brewers to go 20-7 and claw their way back into the running for the NL Central title. If you’ve got the likely NL MVP on offense and the ability to shorten games that much, you’ve certainly got the building blocks for a deep playoff run in this day and age.
The Cubs might have bigger names in their rotation than the Brewers, but they’ve been equally problematic on the mound (their 8.9 fWAR comes in tied for 18th just behind Milwaukee), and the team as a whole has had other issues to sort out. Basically every player in the lineup has underperformed relative to expectations, with the exception of Javier Baez. The struggles have been magnified lately, as the lineup has combined to hit .236/.301/.362 since August 31. Chicago’s bullpen has been middle of the pack, too. Turning to Steve Cishek and Justin Wilson the late innings cost the Cubs the game, and the differences between these two NL Central teams’ bullpens couldn’t have been more clear.
Yet, for all that, the Cubs still came in with a better run differential on the year (+116) than Milwaukee (+95). For all of the negativity, there’s no lack of talent on the Cubs’ mostly young roster and there was never a feeling that they were truly out of the game, even if they were facing a ridiculous bullpen.
While the game in Chicago was a taut affair, with the majority of innings spent locked in a tie and no feeling of an inevitable winner or loser, the same can’t be said of the Dodgers-Rockies NL West tiebreaker. Walker Buehler (2.62 ERA, 3.04 FIP) was one of the best starters in baseball on a per-inning basis and he completely shut down the Rockies’ offense, taking a no-hitter into the 6th and allowing a lone single over 6.2 scoreless innings.
On the Rockies’ side, starter German Marquez, who was MLB’s best non-deGrom pitcher in the second half (with a 2.61 ERA, 2.25 FIP and 3.5 fWAR), performed admirably for the first three innings, before the Dodgers went on a three-inning scoring streak. The Rockies needed a late-September eight-game winning streak just to force a 163rd game, and the odds were in LA’s favor, as much as they can be in these sorts of situations.
While the Dodgers are now set to face the Braves with home-field advantage in the NLDS, the Rockies are stuck with the Cubs in a winner-take-all game later today. Having used Marquez yesterday, LHP Kyle Freeland will be making his first postseason appearance and he’ll be doing it on three-days rest, a first in his MLB career. While he’s certainly in uncharted territories, he’s had an extremely excellent season, setting franchise records in both ERA (2.85) and home ERA (2.40). Even on short rest, he’s almost certainly the best option now that Marquez isn’t available.
The Cubs will start Jon Lester, who has been especially great as of late. Since September rolled around, he’s notched a 1.52 ERA and 2.39 FIP that are both in MLB’s top-ten. For whatever it’s worth, Lester is no stranger to postseason pressure. But the lefty will certainly face some tough at-bats from Nolan Arenado (.368/.451/.747 against LHP in 2018) and Trevor Story (.326/.389/.680 against LHP in 2018).
But there are some worrying signs for the Rockies’ offense aside from those two because, despite nearly winning their division, the Rockies’ offense has been pretty bad as a whole. Their 87 wRC+ is tied for 25th in MLB, and the team they’re tied with would be the Orioles, who have the worst record in either league. After Arenado and Story, there haven’t been many impressive seasons on the whole. If you only look to September, both David Dahl (.287/.330/.655) and Charlie Blackmon (.357/.421/.625) have been excellent, but there are definitely lots of holes in the Rockies’ lineup.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon has to be hoping that Lester can take advantage of that and eat some innings, but he hasn’t exactly done so with aplomb this year. In 32 starts, Lester only made it into the seventh inning seven times, averaging 5.2 innings per start. That’s not necessarily what you want from your starter in an elimination game where you might be hesitant to go to your bullpen.
With Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop on the shelf (although the latter is potentially slated to return), Maddon has had to regularly turn to Cishek and Wilson, and that didn’t turn out so well in their tiebreaker. Not that the Rockies’ bullpen has been a model of perfection. Despite spending heavily on it, the results just haven’t been there, and they’ve posted a 4.63 ERA this season (26th in MLB).
So that’s what we’ve got in the Wild Card Game: a whole lot of questions. Anything can happen in a single game, no matter who’s playing. If you need a reminder, just look to Houston’s 0-4 loss to the aforementioned awful Orioles on Sunday. If I have to choose a winner, I guess I’d go with Chicago, since I trust their lineup a bit more, but I think it’s pretty much a toss-up. Personally, I’d prefer Colorado to prevent the possibility of history repeating itself with yet another Dodgers-Cubs NLCS. If I’m being honest, though, I’m happy no matter what, because postseason baseball, and its glorious nonsense, is the best.